updated 7/29/2004 9:09:40 PM ET 2004-07-30T01:09:40

A military jury found a soldier guilty of armed robbery Thursday for taking an Iraqi sheik’s sport utility vehicle at gunpoint.

The panel also convicted Sgt. 1st Class James Williams of willful dereliction of duty for allowing his soldiers to consume alcohol in Iraq.

Williams, 37, of rural Westmoreland County, Va., maintains he helped take the SUV only because his lieutenant ordered him to procure a vehicle and because he did not think it was a criminal act, but the prosecution alleged he was simply after a “sweet ride.”

Williams, a soldier with the 101st Airborne Division, declined to comment to reporters after the ruling, but his civilian defense attorney, Bernard Casey, said he plans to appeal.

“Where was the evidence this constituted a crime?” Casey said.

Jury begins deliberating sentence
The jury began deliberating a sentence Thursday evening. The prosecution recommended four years in prison, a bad conduct discharge and reduction in rank to private, but the defense argued that the conviction alone was enough to ruin Williams’ life and reminded jurors they did not have to impose a sentence.

Army prosecutor Capt. Howard Hoege said Thursday that Williams helped take the SUV at gunpoint from the sheik’s son, who was driving the vehicle. Williams then helped orchestrate a cover-up story that the vehicle was found abandoned, Hoege said.

Early in the war, soldiers were allowed to “commandeer” a civilian vehicle for military purposes under the rules of engagement. They were instructed to leave a receipt so the vehicle could be later returned to the owner or money could be given to them.

But Hoege said Williams and the other soldiers with him just wanted a “sweet ride” and didn’t leave a receipt with the sheik’s son because “it’s not an issue of a forgotten receipt.”

Williams testified that the day the SUV was taken, 2nd Lt. Bradley Pavlik had told squad leaders to find him a vehicle because two of the platoon’s four vehicles weren’t running.

Debate over leaving receipt
Later that day, the SUV cut off a Humvee in a two-vehicle convoy Williams was in, he said. After about a five-minute chase, the SUV stopped, and the SUV was taken without force after the driver exited the vehicle, Williams said.

Casey said the men did not leave a receipt because they felt the area was hostile, and they needed to leave in a hurry.

The Army later paid Sheik Ahmed W. Al-Faisal $32,000 for the SUV.

Williams said Wednesday he went along with the cover-up story only because Pavlik feared getting into trouble once he learned the men took the vehicle and did not leave a receipt.

Williams also testified he saw commanders drinking alcohol in Iraq and thought it was OK, but Hoege said just because Williams saw others drinking, that did not make it right.

Another soldier was previously convicted in the case and sentenced to prison. Pavlik faces a court-martial starting Aug. 9.

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